An interview with bestselling author, Arthur Herman, about his new book, Gandhi & Churchill
It’s amazing that no one has written a book like this before, about two of the most universally admired icons in the world: Mahatma Gandhi and Winston Churchill. What inspired you to take the subject up?
I wanted to write a book about two great men, who were obviously different but who are also alike in so many ways. It was important to show how their lives and careers intersected at so many points, and how they ended up clashing over war and peace; empire and civilization; political independence and moral responsibility; the meaning of freedom and truth; even over the existence of God, for more than forty years. Obviously these are still important issues, which is why I think the book is so relevant today. It’s really about what constitutes leadership in a democratic society: not just for Britain and India, which is of course the world’s largest democracy, but for America in an election year.
Gandhi & Churchill certainly has an epic feel. Sometimes while reading it I felt like I was watching a film by David Lean. Did that epic quality come to you from the material?
Absolutely! You have to remember that although Gandhi and Churchill only met physically once, their paths crossed again and crossed again all over the globe, from London and South Africa and India and back to London. In fact, I discovered that during the Boer War in 1899 they literally passed yards from each other on the battlefield.
I don’t think many people realize Gandhi was a war veteran.
Yes, and even won a medal for bravery! So here you have two men, whose lives are intertwined through the Boer War, through two world wars, through the Great Depression and the independence movement in India, right down to Gandhi’s assassination in 1948. Two men who lived with tragedy and failure; in fact, failed so many times they should have given up long before they became famous and inspiring leaders. But two men who through sheer will power and a belief in humanity managed to achieve what they most wanted—but at the cost of what they most treasured.
I thought it was an incredible story, and I wanted my readers to know not just the details, but to realize how the career of one had a direct influence on the career of the other over the years—sometimes in unexpected ways.
Can you give a quick example?
Sure. Take Churchill’s decision to launch the Gallipoli invasion during World War One. It turned out to be a costly blunder in lives and treasure, it poisoned relations between Britain and Australia (as anyone knows who has seen the Mel Gibson movie), and Gallipoli nearly ruined Churchill’s career. But it was the making of Gandhi’s, because Britain’s war against Turkey, a Moslem country, roused the political consciousness of India’s forty million Muslims about Western imperialism: and Gandhi was able to build his first important political alliance in India with those same Indian Muslims. The same thing happens again and again, as I explain in the book. ‘What if’s’ abound, as well. For example, what if Churchill’s political party, the Conservatives, had won the general election in 1929? Churchill would have been Secretary of State for India and there would have been no Gandhi salt march to the sea (Churchill would have arrested him the moment he left his ashram), no iconic image of Gandhi making salt to broadcast around the world and to galvanize the Indian nationalist movement.
And what if Churchill had given up his battle against the Government of India Bill giving India dominion status in 1931, instead of dragging the battle out for another four years? India might have been a self-governing country in 1937 instead of in 1947, and there might have been no need for partition of India and Pakistan—and millions of lives might have saved, including Gandhi’s.
What surprised you most in researching the book?
I guess the most surprising discovery was how long Gandhi remained loyal to the ideal of the British Empire, even in India. Until he was well into his forties, at times he and Churchill almost sound the same. It was only when Gandhi became convinced that British intransigence left India no choice but full independence that he turned to civil disobedience. Yet, as I show in the book, non-violence largely failed as a political tactic. But it did succeed in undermining Britons’ confidence in their mandate to rule in India. Everyone’s, that is, except Churchill!
You say they fought for forty years but only met once. Do you think if they might have found common ground on India and other issues, if they had met more often?
I think so. They certainly tried to meet. Gandhi wanted to meet with Churchill, his most bitter foe, when he visited London in 1931—but it didn’t happen. Churchill wanted to go to India personally as prime minister in 1942 to negotiate a final settlement on India with Gandhi and the other nationalist leaders—but the fall of Singapore prevented it from happening. And Gandhi sent one of his saddest letters from prison to Churchill in 1944, in hopes of opening a personal dialogue—but it never arrived.
Sometimes you have to believe in destiny, or perhaps fate. I think destiny meant for these two men, who might have been such powerful allies, to be enemies: and so they have passed on to us as virtually complementary figures:
• One the great war leader, the other the great apostle of non-violence. • One the symbol of Western civilization at its most optimistic and robust; the other of our multi-cultural global community. • One the advocate of liberty as the most precious legacy of the West; the other of freedom as God’s gift to all human beings.
So in the end, it’s the story of the choices we face in the new global future—the future these two men did so much to bring about.